Disability Power Series

A Conversation with Keah Brown

Lindsay Drexler
May 1, 2020

On April 9th, live from Zoom, we presented the inaugural installment of our Disability Power Series. Risa Jaz Rifkind, our Director of Civic Engagement and Marketing, and Alex Perez-Garcia, our Associate Director of Development and Communications, engaged author Keah Brown in a riveting hour-long conversation. Keah is the creator of the viral hashtag #DisabledAndCute; contributor to Teen Vogue, ESPNW, Harper’s Bazaar, and Marie Claire UK, among other publications; andauthor of her recently published first (but certainly not last) book, The Pretty One, a charming collection of essays exploring what it means to be black and disabled in a mostly white and able-bodied America.

If you haven’t had the chance to read The Pretty One, this compelling conversation (available in all its glory on our YouTube page) will no doubt send you running — er, scrolling — to your nearest online bookshop. If you’re in Chicago like we are, we encourage you to support a local book store, like Madison Street Books, who offers free home delivery in the West Loop or will ship the book to your home for $1.

Read on for a few highlights from our discussion with our brilliant, pop-culture loving, rom-com obsessed, charismatic, talented in advocacy: the disabled and cute Keah Brown.

On passing time during social distancing:

When asked how she’s coping amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Keah refers to her daily writing routine as a godsend. “For me, writing sort of, like, calms me down and keeps me centered.” She wisely adds that not everyone may — nor should — feel a similar sense of productivity. “We are in the middle of a pandemic, and so don’t feel like you have to create and you have to have some sort of fantastic art or the next great American novel […] the only reason that I’m still creating is because it makes me feel good. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t do it.” To those who may struggle with productivity guilt, she offers some simple, yet profound advice: “Be kind to yourself.”

How she finds power as a queer woman of color with a disability:

Once again, writing gets its due. “I feel like I’m my most confident self, most certain self on the page.” Going deeper, she discusses how she uses this power in terms of intersectionality. “Using [my platform] to be who I am all the time without apology, and talk about what it means to be of color and disabled, what it means to be queer and disabled, what it means to live with those intersections and not apologize for the space that I take up. That’s where I find my most power.”

On disability representation in pop culture:

As a self-acclaimed pop culture expert, Keah has plenty to say on the topic, particularly as it relates to disability. “I think we’re getting to a place where we’re allowing disabled characters to be fully realized people, and that’s wonderful […] but at the same time, there’s still so much work to be done.” She takes issue with the stereotypical straight, white, self-hating male character with a disability, pointing out that while stories of that sort are worthy of being told, they only represent a small fraction of reality. For true progress in disability representation, a light must shine on the whole spectrum of disability perspectives. Keah also gives side-eye to saccharine tales of disability woe. “These things tend to, you know, cater towards sappiness in a way that, like, annoys me, in a way that doesn’t seem genuine. I think that you can allow disabled people to fall in love and fall out of love and not want to kill themselves by the time the movie is over.”

Three men of different races are in a Walmart-like store. Two are wearing blue work vests. One man is in a wheelchair They are all looking at something off camera, amused.
A scene from Superstore, one of Keah's favorite shows

On the shock value of disability:

In her book, Keah remarks on the way people without disabilities think about disabilities more than people with disabilities think about disabilities, a fact she continues to be bemused by to this day. “They think that it is the number one thing on our minds at all times, that we have no other interests or cares or, you know, hobbies or anything. They think that it’s just all disability all the time […] because it’s such a shock to them, they think that it’s just a constant shock to us.” She stresses the importance of able-bodied people getting past this mental block. “It’s just important that nondisabled people stop thinking about the shock value of disability and start seeing the person behind the disability — or rather, in tandemwith disability.”

On discriminatory COVID-19 treatment:

“It’s hard not to be petrified,” Keah admits, “I don’t want to die because somebody who has no idea what it’s like to live with a disability thinks that my life is less because I have one.” She continues with a cutting observation. “They think a preexisting condition automatically means we wouldn’t make it, but the only way we wouldn’t make it is if they weren’t really trying to do their jobs.” Seriously.

Sidebar: check out our YouTube video and accompanying blog post for a deeper dive into the impacts of COVID-19 on the disability community.

On the positive impact of art on mental health (particularly during the pandemic crisis):

Keah believes that various forms of art provide a necessary comfort. “It’s not frivolous to put your heart into art or to try to create your own happy ending through art or through just trying to get through the next date, whether it’s through a movie, book, a TV show. It’s very important, I think, to find something that makes you feel like you can get through another hour, another second, another minute. And to hold onto that as tightly as you can.”

On what she’s doing next:

“I’ve been working on a movie and a novel […] I’m just trying to keep busy and write across genres and do everything that I love.” She even has a whole list of projects waiting for her to tackle. “Mediocre people get to do it all the time, so why not me?” she demurs. (You’re anything but mediocre, Keah!)

On when we’ll see a good character with a disability on film:

Keah answers this with a bold phrase: “When I sell this movie.” Bam. (We love that attitude, Keah!)

Some of Keah’s shout-outs and recommendations during this time:


  • Crip Camp (she ugly cried, y’all!)
  • Any and all rom-coms, pretty much


  • The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt

Authors and Journalists:

  • Wendy Lu
  • Blair Imani
  • Roxane Gay
  • Samantha Irby
  • Brandon Taylor

Social Media Trailblazers:


  • Paramore

Stand-Up Comedy:

  • Danielle Perez

TV Series:

  • In The Dark (she loves the messy characters)
  • Superstore
  • 90-Day Fiancé (again: messy)

That wraps up the wrap-up of our engaging conversation with the delightful Keah Brown. Be sure to check out our YouTube video for the more in-depth version! Thank you, Keah, not only for putting beautiful words out into the universe, but also for taking time out of your day to be our very first guest on our very first Disability Power Series event, making it a truly special one. We wish you endless happiness and success, and we look forward to your upcoming works of art.

Please be on the lookout for the next installment of our Disability Power Series. And remember, as someone once wisely said: be kind to yourself.

Keah’s book, The Pretty One. Subtitle: “On life, pop culture, disability & other reasons to fall in love with me.”

If you’d like to purchase The Pretty One, we encourage you to support a local bookstore like Madison Street Books, which offers free home delivery in the West Loop as well as $1 shipping nationwide. (madstreetbooks.com) The Pretty One is also available for purchase on Amazon. (www.amazon.com).

Thank you to our Disability Power Series sponsors:

Disruptor: Ann Manikas

Disability Power Series